At 85, Bob Galvin was recently sidelined by eye surgery. Although he'll now require custom-made glasses, the former chief of Motorola still expects -- as he does every year -- to hit the ski slopes this winter in Vail, Colo.
It also won't keep him from "calling the shots" at the pair of research and development ventures he launched in recent years, each seeking to revolutionize part of the nation's aging infrastructure -- from revamping the power grid to wiping out big-city gridlock. "I had to live long enough to be able to make a contribution without worrying about losing my investment," Galvin, who helped build Motorola's revenue from $216 million to $6.7 billion over 30 years before stepping down as CEO in 1986, says about taking on such ambitious and time-consuming projects so late in life. Besides, some people just aren't cut out for retirement.
Eighty-four year old Phyllis Apple agrees. The CEO of the Apple Organization, a North Miami Beach, Fla.-based public-relations firm, Apple says she's in great health and has plenty of time for golf and needlepoint on the weekends -- despite working full time. "I have everything I want," she says. "Why should I retire?"
Galvin and Apple, like the other members of Inc.com's 8 Over 80 list, are in good company among a small but growing number of unstoppable octogenarians (and older) who are spending their twilight years presiding over new and old ventures alike, rather than hitting the shuffle board courts or joining the bridge club. If this eclectic group had an honorary chairman, it would be Jack Weil, the 106-year-old CEO of Rockmount Ranch Wear, a Denver, Colorado-based apparel firm, whose cowboy shirts were popular with former President Ronald Reagan and were more recently worn by the cast of Brokeback Mountain.
What keeps these new old-timers going? As baby boomers begin to hit retirement age -- triggering an expected seismic shift in the labor market, among other social and economic shakeups -- economists, policymakers, and researchers are asking that very question. The answer that's emerging lies in a mix of access to capital, improved health, technology, and maybe a little old-fashioned chutzpah.
What's certain is that Americans are living longer than ever. And many are hitting retirement age -- or well beyond -- at the helm of their own business. Currently, close to 7 million workers ages 50 and older, or roughly 16 percent of the entire U.S. workforce, according to the Labor Department, are self-employed. About a third made the transition to self-employment after age 50, with rates of self-employment increasing with age. While only about 2 percent of all U.S. workers are 81 or older, nearly all of them are self-employed. In other words, if you're over 80 and still in the workforce, chances are pretty good that, like Bob Galvin and Phyllis Apple, you're calling the shots.
According to labor and age researchers at the RAND Corporation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based public policy think tank, the older self-employed people tend to be predominantly male and well educated. The businesses they run are small -- typically with fewer than five employees, if any. Most operate on their own or with a spouse, and the sectors they work in tend to be those that are more conducive to working alone and for yourself, such as agriculture, retail trade, business services, management, and sales.
"Like any generation, these are entrepreneurs driven by hobbies, necessity, lifestyle, innovation -- you name it," says Judith Cone, a vice president at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship group based in Kansas City, Mo. "They ain't all the same."
Still, like their younger counterparts, older entrepreneurs are risk-takers. Often they're launching businesses by cracking open their retirement piggy banks at a time when their peers are tapping personal savings for travel, summer homes, and other more leisurely pursuits. A recent survey by the Hartford Financial Services Group found that a vast majority of retirement-age boomer entrepreneurs preferred funding start-ups with personal savings, rather than loans, credit cards, or other debt-related financing. Yet, by digging into their savings, older entrepreneurs are left with far less room to maneuver, in terms of time and energy to recoup lost savings, according to Hartford vice president John Diehl.
These older entrepreneurs "face a distinct challenge in that they have a shorter time horizon to rebuild their wealth should their investment in their business not produce desired financial results," Diehl says.
Cone adds that on the upside, older entrepreneurs who do turn to banks and investors for start-up capital have the advantage of a strong professional network. "If you're going to try to get angel funding, your network is going to be much deeper at that stage of your life," she says.
Despite the financial stakes -- or perhaps because of them -- entrepreneurs who launch their businesses after age 50 are less likely than regular wage and salary earners to consider retirement at all. Most expect to continue working well after 65 and aren't the least bit worried about retirement income, according to RAND researchers. In fact, those that do eventually retire are often forced to by poor health.
Often, it's the business that keeps them going. At 106, Jack Weil says he still goes to work at his western apparel company every day in order to spend time with his son and grandson, who have both played a role in running the business. What keeps him going, he says, is the chance to see them carry on a venture he built long before they were born.
"I think I'm the happiest and luckiest guy in the world," Weil says.